Open access medical content and the world’s largest encyclopedia

Authors & Wikipedians: Thomas Shafee, Diptanshu Das, James Heilman & Gwinyai Masukume

Wikipedia aims to make a free and accessible summary of all human knowledge and is therefore one of the most well known open access efforts. The cumulative efforts of its volunteer writers (Wikipedians) has resulted in it dwarfing all previous encyclopedias in scope and depth. Additional collaborations with members of the open access community are taking this further. Many of these ideas are globally relevant, however a number of initiatives exist in Australia and New Zealand. A pair of recent papers in Science and JECH make the case that there has never been a better time to help shape the world’s most-read information source.

An open access encyclopedia

A few decades ago, an encyclopedia was a luxury that few could afford. Now, all with Internet access have free access to an encyclopedia larger than could fit in most homes, if printed. Wikipedia is extensively used by the general public, as well as doctors, medical students, lawmakers, and educators.

Indeed, it’s the primary free information source in many countries, especially for biomedical content. For example, during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the rapid updating and translation of relevant Wikipedia into more than 115 languages lead to these articles being read nearly 100 million times that year. Access to Wikipedia without data charges is also available in over 50 countries via the Wikipedia Zero project, covering more than 300 million people. The offline medical Wikipedia app and Internet-in-a-box initiatives offer greater accessibility to those with limited connectivity. With over half of the world’s population not online, and many more with only intermittent access, these efforts are critical.

Wikipedia and the open access movement strengthen each other

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and therefore can only summarise existing knowledge. It therefore depends on citing reliable and verifiable reference sources to support its statements. Since it is editable by anyone, it is particularly important that anyone be able to cross-check the stated ‘facts’. Indeed, Wikipedia is the 6th highest referrer of DOI links (the unique hyperlinks assigned to academic articles).

However, most Wikipedia readers (and many of its writers) do not have access to paywalled articles. How then can references be checked? Some journals provide access to Wikipedians through the Wikipedia Resource Library. This allows details within paywalled sources to be duly summarised and distributed, but it’s an imperfect solution. Readers wanting to check a source or read deeper into a subject hit the wall, and images can’t be easily replicated. Wikipedia articles commonly cite open access articles, however there are often no open access alternatives to paywalled articles. Currently, there is no perfect solution for which sources to cite, but any efforts that strengthen open access benefit the encyclopedia.

What can be done to help?

Any advances in the open access movement aid Wikipedia, as well as more targeted efforts.

On an individual level, teaching people how to directly edit Wikipedia enables them to get involved on the ground-level. There are widespread Australian examples, including universities, conferences, libraries, and  societies across the country. Similar events in New Zealand have been hosted by Royal Society Te Apārangi and Whanganui museum. The editing interface has been updated to be as easy to use as a Word document. People may contribute for a specific event (an edit-a-thon), or become regular contributors. The writer community organises itself into groups  called ‘WikiProjects’ with shared topic interests. Efforts include adding or improving text, copy-editing, reviewing new edits, and adding images or other media.

Encouraging professional bodies to formally recognise Wikipedia editing as a service to the academic community and wider world will help legitimize it as a worthwhile use of time by busy professionals. Greater involvement by subject experts can improve Wikipedia’s quality. As yet, no Australian or New Zealand funding body formally recognises Wikipedia editing for grant or fellowship applications.

We also strongly support the expansion of dual-publishing of peer reviewed articles by academic journals (e.g. by PLOS, Gene, and Wiki.J.Med). This process creates a citable ‘version of record’ in the journal (providing academic credit for the authors) and the content is then used to create or overhaul the relevant Wikipedia pages. Through Wikipedia, health professionals can massively impact public health literacy (even obscure Wikipedia pages usually get hundreds or thousands of views per day). Academics similarly gain a public impact that is matched by few other platforms. In return, the encyclopedia benefits from the accurate and expert-reviewed information and the journal gains greater exposure.

Larger groups and organisations can also be mobilised to contribute to Wikipedia as an open access outlet. For example, Blausen Medical and have contributed galleries of open access images and videos, which are used to illustrate the encyclopedia. Institutions such as the Cochrane, Cancer research UK, and Consumer Reports have teamed up with experienced Wikipedians and trained their members to add information and references to relevant Wikipedia articles. Journals can also be encouraged to release their back-catalogues under open access licenses, unlocking vital sources. Studies at Australia’s Monash University also recommended integrating Wikipedia editing into university courses, and several universities, such as the University of Sydney, do just this.  Even database services can integrate their data into Wikipedia’s structured knowledge database, WikiData (e.g. on genes and RNA families).

By Marcos Vinicius de Paulo (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The big picture

Although the recent articles in Science and JECH focused on the biomedical field, these are examples of a much wider phenomenon. For instance, there have been several ongoing collaborations between Galleries, Libraries and Museums around the world to add their knowledge to Wikipedia under open access licenses.

Wikipedia also has the potential to be a knowledge access platform for the 4 billion people who are not currently online. Its open license allows people to translate, build upon, and distribute its content in new and innovative ways with no requirements beyond attribution and releasing what they create under a similar license.

Wikipedia and the open access movement are already intertwined. Open access publishing provides information needed for growing, improving and updating Wikipedia. Meanwhile, Wikipedians search, summarise and combine that vast sea of information into free articles. Each benefits from the strengths of the other, and can be helped by specific collaboration efforts.

The Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation that hosts Wikipedia, is currently formulating its strategy through to 2030 and has identified collaboration with the wider knowledge ecosystem as one of its key themes.


Shafee, Thomas; Masukume, Gwinyai; Kipersztok, Lisa; Das, Diptanshu; Häggström, Mikael; Heilman, James (2017-10-29). “The evolution of Wikipedia’s medical content: past, present and future”. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 71 (10). doi:10.1136/jech-2016-208601.

Shafee, Thomas; Mietchen, Daniel; Su, Andrew I. (2017-08-11). “Academics can help shape Wikipedia”. Science. 357 (6351): 557–558. doi:10.1126/science.aao0462.

Lead image (white books):   Michael Mandiberg (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

This work is licensed by AOASG under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Competing interests:

All authors have contributed to Wikipedia articles, are current participants in WikiProject Medicine, and are on the editorial board of WikiJournal of Medicine. Thomas Shafee is on the editorial board of PLOS Genetics. James Heilman is a former and current member of the Wikimedia Foundation board of trustees. The authors do not receive financial compensation for their contributions to these projects.

Follow the authors on Twitter:

Gwinyai Masukume
James Heilman
Diptanshu Das

AOASG and Creative Commons Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

AOASG is delighted to have formed affiliations with both Creative Commons  Australia and  Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand.

Over the past year, the AOASG has changed its focus and its name from being purely Australian and focused on support (Australian Open Access Support Group) to being Australasian and with more of an emphasis on strategy (Australasian Open Access Strategy Group). As publishing changes globally, especially the move to a more open publishing world, the role of supporting infrastructure and standards such as licenses from Creative Commons becomes even more strategically important.


We already work with Creative Commons  in a number of ways. Last year we collaborated with Creative Commons  Australia on the production of a resource “Know your rights” to explain what the licenses mean for users. Together, we run regular online meet ups in Australia and New Zealand thus supporting communities of practices in both places.

creativecommonskiwi-300x278However, Creative Commons’ work in areas outside the remit of AOASG – such as the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums (GLAM) and schools  provides a welcome opportunity to reach out beyond the boundaries of traditional scholarly publishing. In return, we hope that the affiliation of Creative Commons  Australia and Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand with AOASG will reinforce the importance of licenses within the academic publishing community.

We look forward to more collaborations across the three organisations in future.


An OA publisher’s perspective on CC-BY

As the Director of the University of Adelaide Press, I am participating in the Humanities and Social Sciences session in the OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association) conference in Latvia, Riga later this month.

OASPA was initially set up to group together Open Access journal publishers, and now is keen to include book publishers, in all disciplines.

At present, which is why I am speaking, OASPA require that their members not only have published at least one Open Access book, but also that it is published with a licence that allows the “broadest re-use of published material possible”.

Their preference is the ‘CC-BY’ licence, now required by the United Kingdom funding bodies if they fund research, the European Union, and increasingly other funding bodies around the world.

I do not believe this licence is automatically appropriate for Humanities and Social Sciences which generally publish in books. 

‘Open Access’ as a term was formally adopted in the Budapest Open Access Initiative in December 2001, with the aim of assisting faster advances in Sciences, Medicine and Health. 

Subsequently, the six Creative Commons licences were created, to provide globally coherent copyright licences.

I do not have a quibble with the most open licence of all, the CC-BY licence, when it is used in Sciences, Medicine and Health.  Or for that matter, if any author in the Humanities and Social Sciences wishes to use it.

My quibble is when it is mandated to all of us to use.  I disagree flatly and categorically that when there are six different Creative Commons licences that only one must be used.

The CC-BY licence not only allows all readers the free, open access to the text, and to share it and quote it, but also to adapt it and create what they call, mysteriously, “derivative works”.

There is no requirement for these derivative works to be subjected to the same rigorous peer-reviewing before publishing that the original work had to pass.

It also allows them to commercialise their derivative work, without needing to share the profits with the original author, the only condition being that they attribute the original work.

No one yet has explained what a derivative work is to me, and even in the legal language of the licence itself, it remains a vague term.

This licence is undoubtedly perfect when applied to the results of fast-moving medical research, for example in genetics.

But it could equally allow an unscrupulous publisher to patch together a very good textbook and make a killing, probably selling it back to the same institutions that produced the original scholarly texts.

We already are more than aware of the way institutions are forced to buy back their own research in journal packages, in which they did not pay for the content, indeed charged a fee to publish it, then took ownership of the copyright, and also receive subsequent copyright use payments – like through the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL).

As an author of books myself, I am concerned about a licence allowing someone to take the results of years of original research, largely written in donated time, reword it, change it, and then turn a profit from it.

Of the people I have talked to who insist on the single use of the CC-BY licence, I wonder how many of them have published a book? 

On the other hand, I believe that the Creative Commons licences are essential for Open Access publishing to work efficiently and effectively.  The University of Adelaide Press will be introducing them in future titles, but will allow authors to choose which one suits their work.

John Emerson
Director, University of Adelaide Press

Centrally supported open access initiatives in Australia

Australia has a good track record in relation to open access, from hosting one of the first country-wide thesis repositories in the world to supporting the development and management of institutional repositories. While initially much of this work was pioneered by the university libraries, the Australian Government has made significant commitments more recently.

This blog post gives a short rundown of some of the open access initiatives Australia has seen since 2000, starting with the most recent developments – open access mandates from the two main funding bodies.

Funding mandates

In 2012 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced its revised policy on the dissemination of research findings, effective 1 July 2012. The Australian Research Council (ARC) released its Open Access Policy on 1 January 2013. Both policies require that any publications arising from a funded research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a 12 month period from the date of publication.

There are two minor differences between the two policies. The NHMRC relates only to journal articles where the ARC encompasses all publication outputs. In addition, the NHMRC mandate affects all publications as of 1 July 2012, but the ARC will only affect the outputs produced from the research funded in 2013. Researchers are also encouraged to make accompanying datasets available open access.

Enabling open access

Both the NHMRC and ARC mandates specifically require deposit of metadata (and ideally full text of the work) into the researchers’ institutional repository. This position takes advantage of the existing infrastructure already in place in Australian institutions.

All universities in Australia host a repository, many of them developed with funds the government provided through the Australian Scheme for Higher Education Repositories (ASHER). This scheme which ran from 2007-2009 was originally intended to assist the reporting requirement for the Research Quality Framework (RQF) research assessment exercise, which became Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). The ASHER program had the aim of “enhancing access to research through the use of digital repositories”.

Australian repositories run on software platforms ranging from EPrints, DSpace, ARROW (a VTLS commercial front end to Fedora), to ProQuest Digital Commons (bepress). A full list of repository software platforms for Australian universities is here.

Support for open access in Australia

Repositories in Australia are generally managed by libraries and have been supported by an ongoing organised community. In 2009-2010, the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) established the CAUL Australian Institutional Repository Support Service (CAIRSS) and when central government funding for the service ended, the university libraries agreed to continue the service by supporting it with member contributions. CAIRSS ended in December 2012, however the email list continues a strong community of practice.

In October 2012 the Australian Open Access Support Group launched, commencing staffed operations in January 2013. The group aims to provide advice and information to all practitioners in the area of open access.

Open theses

Historically Australia has a strong track record in providing access to research. The Australasian Digital Theses (ADT) program began in 2000 as a system of sharing PhD theses over the internet. The ADT was a central registry and open access display of theses, which were held in self-contained repositories at each university using a shared software platform that had been developed for the purpose. The first theses were made available in July 2000.  In 2011, as all theses were then being held in universities’ institutional repositories, the ADT was decommissioned. It was estimated that the number of full text Australian theses available in repositories at the time was over 30,000.

Open data

The Australian Government has made a significant commitment to the development of a successful digital economy underpinned by an open government approach, aimed at providing better access to government held information and also to the outputs of government funded research.

The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) is federally funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. It has responsibility for supporting public access to as much publicly funded research data as can be provided within the constraints of privacy, copyright, and technology. In an attempt to provide a platform for sharing information about data, ANDS has developed a discovery service for data resulting from Australian research, called Research Data Australia, which is a national data registry service meshing searchable web pages that describe Australian research data collections supplementing published research. Records in Research Data Australia link to the host institution, which may (or not) have a direct link to the data.

Open government

The work of ANDS reflects the broader government position in Australia of making public data publicly available. The Declaration of Open Government  was announced on July 16, 2010. This policy position is in the process of practical implementation across the country, providing access to information about locations of government services, for example. The level of engagement between government areas and different levels of government varies.

Another government initiative has been the Australian Governments Open Access and Licensing Framework (AusGOAL) which has an emphasis on open formats and open access to publicly funded information and provides a framework to facilitate open data from government agencies. In addition to providing information and fora for discussion, it has developed a licence suite that includes the Australian Creative Commons Version 3.0 licences.

Other publicly funded institutions in Australia also share their research through repositories. The Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation (CSIRO) has a Research Publications Repository. In addition, some government departments are making their research available, such as the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Dr Danny Kingsley
Executive Officer
Australian Open Access Support Group